Sunday, February 24, 2013

Seven Recent Interviews

Interviews continue to be among the most popular posts for this blog. It has been awhile since I collected the most recent. So, for your convenience, here they are.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

You Need a Mentor

Few people make it as writers all by themselves. Writing buddies, writing groups, critics, agents, and editors all play important roles. Add mentors to the list. A good mentor brings experience and expertise that comes from living the life of the writer. Mentors can give you personalized, informed advice that is free of hidden agendas.

I have had amazing mentors throughout my career as a writer (and some amazing mentees, as well). Mentors can up your productivity like no others by diagnosing problems, suggesting education, introducing you to people, evaluating your work, answering questions, and reading between the lines on notes from agents and editors. But you need to take steps to have a good mentoring relationship:

  • Choose the right mentor. Mentors are not peers. They are people who know more about writing and the business of writing than you do. They also need to be committed to helping you in at least some areas where you have a need. Of course, a good personal relationship can make a big difference in the experience.
  • Know what you're looking for. What are the main things you need to become the writer you want to be? Advice on plots? Encouragement? News about agents? Character development? Once you have your list, figure out what a mentor might be able to help you with. Determine which of these your mentor may have expertise it. Then articulate clearly to your mentor what you are hoping to get out of the relationship.
  • Be open to suggestions. The fastest way to kill a mentor/mentee relationship is for the mentee to dismiss suggestions from the mentor. I've had mentees cut me off in the middle of sentences. Seriously. Listen and consider. Not every suggestion will be on point, expected, or worth acting on. But, if your mentor is a good match for you, they all will be based on good intentions and experience and worth your thinking about. Don't defend yourself when advice is given. The proper responses are requests for clarification and thank you.
  • Be respectful. Your mentor needs to keep her career going. Her need to hit a deadline, promote a book, or have some down time exceeds your need to get an answer to a question, curse the gods, or share a bottle of champagne. Never guilt trip a mentor or demand a quick response. Know your boundaries. Respect stated limits. I've had some mentors willing to mark up full manuscripts and others who set limits on time (two hours a month) or what I could bring to them (loglines only, questions only). Don't be greedy.
  • Pass it on. You should make an effort to be helpful to your mentor. This may mean writing an Amazon review or it could be just making sure the books stand out on the shelf in the bookstore. Often, however, there is an asymmetry in opportunity to help between you and your mentor. So much more is given than you can repay. In that case, you should mentor someone yourself. Be the best mentor you can be for someone who needs a hand up. This will honor your mentor's generosity, and it will also teach you about the mentor/mentee relationship.
If you don't have a mentor, get one. Join a writing group, attend a conference, reply to a blog, take a class, ask for an introduction. Don't rush it. Make sure the experienced writer knows you before you pop the question. And don't be discouraged if the mentor you want says no. There are some wonderful writers who are too busy or who realize they don't have what it takes to be mentors. It's not personal. But make an effort to find a mentor. Don't go it alone.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Every Other Friday -- PJ Sharon

PJ Sharon is author of contemporary young adult novels, including HEAVEN IS FOR HEROES, a finalist in the Denver Heart of Romance Molly contest. Her stories have garnered several contest finals, including a place in the Wisconsin Romance Writers FAB Five contest for ON THIN ICE.  Her third novel, SAVAGE CINDERELLA, published in March of 2012 was a finalist in the Valley Forge Romance writer’s contest as well as the Florida Romance Writers GOLDEN PALM contest in 2010.

On the road to publication, PJ decided that indie-publishing was the best fit for her books. Although the themes are mature, evoking plenty of drama and teen angst, PJ writes with a positive outlook and promises a hopefully ever after end to all of her books. She believes in strong heroines empowered by learning valuable life lessons.

Tell me about Waning Moon.
Waning Moon is Book One in The Chronicles of Lily Carmichael trilogy. It’s a YA dystopian, set in the year 2057 in a post-apocalyptic world where three quarters of the population has been wiped out by a global pandemic, and a polar shift threatens the remainder of earth’s inhabitants with extinction. Our heroine, a sixteen-year-old genetically altered teen, Lily Carmichael, faces bigger challenges than the end of the world—escaping capture by a rogue government agency, saving her family, and avoiding falling in love.

What drove you to write Waning Moon? Who did you write it for?
I wrote this book after many discussions with friends about where we thought the world would be in forty or fifty years. Lily’s story unfolded in my brain, came to me as a full-fledged trilogy, and wouldn’t leave me alone until I wrote it. I actually had to set aside another manuscript that I was halfway through to write this one.

As far as who I wrote it for, I have to say that all my books seem to have a familiar theme of “no matter how bad things get, there is always hope.” I write teen stories with that message in mind. In the midst of all the dark subject matter in YA these days, I think teens need to read more books with uplifting messages. I also wanted to write an adventure story that would appeal to teen boys as well as the female readers I usually write for.

What were your biggest obstacles?
Honestly, I had no idea how much research would be involved in creating a world that does not yet exist. My husband is an engineer and a great resource, but I knew I couldn’t get away with lame technology that was less than believable, especially for purposes of continuity throughout the trilogy. For instance, because of the polar shift, there is increased exposure to radiation that happens to people who are out in the sun during its zenith. I had to make sure to stay consistent with this information. One of my beta readers caught me on it and asked, “Shouldn’t all those people be wearing protective eye shields?” But of course they should!

What are your productivity tips?
There is nothing that compares to simply digging in and tackling the writing as if it were a full time job and I were being paid for it. I treat myself as if I’m an employee, and boy is my boss a task master, LOL.

I set deadlines and announce them publicly so that I’m held accountable and locked into a specific timeline. This isn’t for everyone because it can certainly create some stress, but I find I work best to deadlines and public humiliation, so this is what works for me. I write lists, and have daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly goals. I have a one year, three year, five year, and ten year plan, which of course almost never come to fruition but keep me moving forward nonetheless.

This all sounds very regimented and OCD, but really, the goals and lists are guidelines. I don’t judge or berate myself for not meeting a goal. I reassess what worked, what didn’t, why it did/didn’t and then move on and make a new goal. After a year of mayhem and meeting the stressful accomplishment of indie-publishing four novels and a short story, I’m planning a much less aggressive production schedule for 2013. My boss and I have come to an understanding and she only wants what’s best for me…which is for me to be a happy and healthy writer.

Do you have any questions for me? 
I’ve always been a two steps forward and one step back kind of writer, editing and tweaking the previous chapter before moving on to a new one when I sit down to write. That made NaNoWriMo very challenging for me. It seems daunting to have to go back at the end and try to revise when half of what you’ve written is crap. I get the concept of “you can’t revise a blank page,” but for me it seems better to repair as I go than to have to do a huge re-write.

I’m curious, what do you think about keeping word count journals? Do you think it’s more important to write fast, or write for quality?

You didn't ask me about your tweaking, but I'll respond anyway. I'm in favor of whatever works for a writer, and you certainly are productive, without sacrificing story. With that said, other writers might think twice before copying your behavior. I've known too many who have fallen into the looping trap.

I'm a big fan of wordcount journals, setting timers, and anything else that helps writers keep at it and see their progress. Tracking rewriting is more difficult, and I recommend that writers identify their processes and keep a writing process diary.

To an extent, I think speed or quality is a false choice. Yes, it is possible to go into automatic writing mode and produce pages of crap. Just putting words on paper can create prose that is filled with cliches or even incoherent. But, when you are present as you write and you make an honest attempt to tell your story, the pages produced may be imperfect -- but they are likely to be valuable. 

The forward momentum and immediate forgiveness of fast drafting can kill the inner critic that makes you less productive. And the ease with which you create pages will make it less difficult to cut bad scenes or scenes that don't belong in your story.

Not all the tips I provide on productive writing work for everyone. This includes my recommendation that writers push forward and complete the work before rewriting. I know, for some people, the "bad" pages call to them. They are never able to overcome the distraction and stress created by waiting to fix what they've written. Transitioning to fast drafting is difficult. My guess is, if, after two weeks of honestly attempting to make the change, it still gives you the flying fantods, it's time to use a different productivity approach.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Rewrite 8 – Stronger Verbs for Better Stories

Strong verbs enliven your prose. Weak verbs flatten it. When I rewrite, I always find the same sad, weak verbs: look, feel, walk, know, and forms of the verb “to be.” Often, I’ve tried to bolster them with adverbs. Autocrit (a powerful application I’ll write about in a future post) highlights these for me, and I squirm when I first see the analyzed pages.
I hobble even good verbs by adding limiting words (almost, nearly, more or less, practically) or undercut their strength with –ing or have/had (I embalmed/was embalming/had embalmed). And, of course, the passive intrudes from time to time. (The dead iguana was embalmed.)
I also indulge in negatives. (I was not eager vs. I hesitated. He didn’t explain it well vs. He confused me.)
I can identify these problems without much trouble. First, I mark them. Later, I revisualize each scene, and better verbs come to mind. When I get stuck, I resort to a thesaurus, but I hate to do that. A good thesaurus will tempt me to use a verb that amuses me or that is inappropriate for my tone, character, or audience. (As a speechwriter, I rarely resort to books of quotations, for the same reason.) Finally, I make the fix.
So it’s a simple process, and a necessary part of rewriting:
·      Identify weak and weakened verbs.
·      Mark them.
·      Reimagine the scenes.
·      Make repairs (by putting in more specific, visual verbs, getting rid of adverbs and qualifying words or phrases, and/or changing the verb form).
But what happens when the verb resists replacement?
Dialogue – Your characters do not need to sound like good writers. In fact, making characters hyper-articulate can ruin your stories. I am aware of the grammatical errors my characters make, and I usually let them stand. I spot their weak verbs, too, and, when the characters naturally express themselves with those words, they stay in the manuscript.
Avoiding repetition – Except in instruction manuals and poetry, repeated words bore readers. But the story actions may demand a series of repeats. In such circumstances, something like “stroll, walk amble” may be better than “stroll, amble, amble.”
Simplicity - It is possible to make the prose too dense, to end up pummeling your reader with strong verbs. Do not make replacements that stress your reader or muddy your prose. Read the piece with the weak verb out loud. If it sounds good, it is good.
Sometimes weak verbs reveal poorly imagined scenes. This may be the biggest value to my analysis of the verbs. I may create a lot of rewriting work for me, but it makes the story stronger. And that is the main point of rewriting, isn’t it?   

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Characters (and Writers) Need Great Settings

Where am I? I’m reading contest entries once again, and a common problem is amorphous setting. Minimally, the setting needs to orient us. But a setting can also be an obstacle, increase verisimilitude, set the mood, be symbolic, and tell us about the character. This last is especially important with first-person narratives, where what is noticed and how it is described can reveal much. (The protagonist in the entry I’m reading today notices everything in purple detail. Not a winner.)
Setting can make you more productive because details spark imagination. Also, a complete setting creates helpful limits. Finally, a well-defined setting will keep you from confusing the reader (and yourself). Let’s look at each of these.
Spur your imagination. The more you see, the more you can respond to artistically. Writers tend to be in the heads of their protagonists (and in their own heads in real life), but action that can be visualized and immediate happens in offices, airplanes, bedrooms, caves of wonder, and other spaces. Seeing the setting more fully and specifically gives your characters more license to get up, move around, and act. In her class on Visual Writing (a course I highly recommend), Max Adams insists on establishing space,light, and texture. I’ve found this is a great requirement for scripts and novels. For help on creating setting, check out the articles in
Create helpful limits. Sight lines, furniture, comfort, travel times, and proximity to resources (and weapons) all impact how a plot spins out. A definite, specific setting will create some possibilities and shut down others, helping to guide you through your story. More complete settings will also help you avoid some rewrites needed to support a plot turn (or make it clear what those rewrites should be).
Avoid confusion. The relationships of objects and people within spaces need to be consistent, especially when people need to be in certain places. I’ve read many amateur works where characters are inadvertently teleported to convenient locations. Or where distance between sites became elastic. I’ve created floor plans on graph paper so that I could refer to them. I’ve also sketched out maps. (Map making is often essential for fantasy and science fiction, and I found some help. ) Just as productive writers keep references on the details of characters (eye color, clothing, childhood trauma) to avoid inconsistencies and extended checks through manuscripts, many keep floor plans and maps at hand. I prefer creating the basics of these before drafting and doing any updates after drafting is complete. Creating and updating references during the drafting process cramps creativity and is akin to looping.
It’s okay to overdo setting in your draft. Make sure you have enough to put yourself into the scene. You can always pull back from the purple prose in the editing. And you should make an effort to reduce the description to the minimum in rewriting since readers are looking for dialogue and action. Don’t hold onto big paragraphs that readers will skip just because you fall in love with them.
For more on setting, check out Bigger 3 - Take Me to Monte Carlo.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Every Other Friday -- Stephanie Queen

I've lost control of my blog. Once again, EOF is a guest blog rather than an interview. Please welcome Stephanie Queen lives in bucolic New Hampshire where writing happy, snappy romances takes most of her time. However you can also find her watching UConn football and basketball games whenever they’re on TV, and sometimes even in person. Right now, she’s busy writing her next book in the Scotland Yard Exchange Program Series. Visit her website to learn more at or connect with Stephanie Queen on --> Twitter or Facebook.

The Osmosis Method….I’ll let you know if it works…in about a month

Have you heard? The way to publishing success is to “forget about marketing and write that next book. Product sells!” It’s the same advice I’ve heard about six-thousand-two-hundred-and-eighty-three times. Usually tacked onto the end of a blog about marketing tips.
So, naturally I feel the pressure to Write Fast! Or at least be more productive. I’m all about efficiency. I’m a do-more-with-less believer from way back. Frank Gilbreth, Jr., the efficiency expert of Cheaper By the Dozen fame is a hero of mine (only slight exaggeration). The notion of writing a book fast—actually finishing a novel inside a month—is more seductive to me than a Jimmy Thomas novel cover.
But here’s the thing, so far all I’ve done is read about it.  The amount of research I’ve done probably qualifies me for a Ph.D. on speed writing. Here’s a few key things I’ve learned and plan to employ in my soon-to-start first fast draft attempt:
Plot Preparation is key.
As in any race against time, you can’t go in without a warm-up, toned and prepared for days, weeks, months (you get the picture). This is actually one of the common themes of numerous sources on writing fast. Candace Havens, who conducts Fast Draft workshops on-line, advocates for a period of plotting before the storm of writing. Rachel Aaron, author of 2,000 to 10,000 says in her book “the most important step of writing fast is knowing what you’re writing before you write it.”
This makes sense if you think about it. If before writing any novel you would normally have a period of pre-writing, to write a novel FAST, the pre-writing stage is more important.
Scheduling Time
I bought a timer. Not only will I schedule time, I will time my writing time. After studying my writing habits and much analysis of this self-reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that I write faster and more effectively in short sprints. Aaron recommends such an analysis of your past writing habits to optimize your writing schedule. According to Candace Havens, you should plan on 2-3 hours a day of non-stop writing in whatever intervals or time of day that works best for you. If you don’t already track your word count, when and where you write, you might want to try it to see when you have the most output and under what circumstances. 
This is my way of saying “getting psyched.” For someone new to the rigor of writing with superhuman speed, it takes a change in mind-set. Or so that’s my theory. Thus all the immersion into the fast writing research, drinking the Kool-Aid of the experts and talking about it incessantly to writer friends, helps me wrap my mind around the concept to make it a real thing. I need to think of writing a novel in one month as a realistic goal, not some pie-in-the-sky dream. Reading all about other people who’ve done it—and exactly how they’ve done it—is important for me to take the task seriously and to make it a reality.
If you want it badly enough and you invest yourself in it, and there’s no law of physics between you and your goal, then you will achieve it.  That’s a quote from Stephanie Queen on writing fast.